How to Have Healthy Hair

Hair gives shape and definition to your face. For that reason, your looks can be helped or hurt dramatically just by changing the way your hair looks. That leads to the question: What makes hair look good? There are two parts to the answer: first, the health of your hair, and second, the style of your hair. This article provides the facts you need to keep your hair healthy. For information on style see: How to Choose a Hairstyle.

pH Factor & Hair

pH Scale
pH Scale

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to improve the health of your hair is to keep the pH factor of your hair in an acid balance. Since this is so important, let's take a closer look at what this means.

pH measurements are important in a wide-range of sciences including trichology, which deals with the scientific study of the health of hair and scalp. pH stands for "power of hydrogen" and is a measure of the activity of the hydrogen ion. By international agreement, pH is measured on a logarithmic scale that ranges from 0 to 14. A solution that is less than 7 on the pH scale is said to be acidic, and a solution greater than 7 is said to be basic or alkaline. It might seem strange to hear that your hair, skin, and nails should be acidic, but your body protects itself naturally by staying in a slightly acid state of 4.5 to 5.5. Therefore, anything you put on your skin, hair, or nails should also be acid balanced close to these numbers. For example, a good shampoo should have a pH factor between 4 & 6.5. Using a product in this range can repair problems as well as keep hair clean and soft.

You may wonder why a shampoo can range up to 6.5 on the pH scale, when the optimum state of hair, skin, and nails is in the range 4.5 to 5.5. The reason is that, during the rinsing and the drying process, water dilutes the pH level, because water has its own pH level.

The use of alkaline products on your hair will cause it to swell, lose strength, elasticity, and luster, resulting in more tangles and matting problems. To get a preferred style, it is sometimes necessary to use alkaline products. Examples include hair coloring, perms, and straightening. This is not a problem if, immediately after any major alkaline encounter, a shampoo and conditioner that is in the pH range of 4 to 6.5 is used to bring your hair back into shape.

To put this in perspective, there are only two tests as to whether a shampoo and/or conditioner is good, first, its pH level is between 4 & 6.5, and second, it leaves hair clean, soft, and lustrous after drying. The only exception to these two rules is that people that have a particular scalp problem will need to determine if any additional ingredient(s) are needed to manage their condition. For example, people who are prone to dandruff will need to make sure that an anti-dandruff ingredient is in the shampoo. That said, even dandruff shampoos should fall on the pH scale between 4 & 6.5.

Unfortunately, manufactures do not place their pH scale information on their products and most do not even post it on their websites. You can do an Internet search using the keywords "ph scale [your product]" and you might find someone who has tested your product. However, in matters so personal as hair, it is probably best to be skeptical of other people's findings. There is a solution to this dilemma. You can test the pH level of any liquid with either test strips, or with an electronic pH meter.

pH Test Strips
pH Test Strips
ph Test Meter
pH Test Meter

pH test strips are widely available at most pharmacies, beauty supply stores, and on-line. There are an infinite variety of test strips and they are referred to by many names. Among cosmetologists the most common term for them is nitrazine papers.

Electronic pH meters are easier to read and more accurate. They range in price from $40 to several hundred dollars. For the purpose of testing cosmetics, a low-end meter is sufficient. They are widely available on-line. You can also find them at some pharmacies, and because pH testing is used extensively in horticulture, they can be found at garden centers.

Hair Biology

hair folicle
Hair & Scalp

Any discussion of hair-health must include scalp-health because the living parts of hair (hair follicle, hair root, root sheath, and sebaceous gland) are beneath the skin, while the hair shaft that emerges has no living processes. Because the visible hair shaft is not "live," it cannot be repaired by a biological process. Fortunately, there are many things that can be done to ensure that the cuticle remains intact, which will be discussed below.

An important first step in hair-health is to clean the scalp regularly in order to remove dead skin cells, toxins released through the skin, or external hazards (such as bacteria, viruses, and chemicals) that can create a breeding ground for infection. It is important to note that not all scalp disorders are a result of bacterial infections. Some arise inexplicably, and often only the symptoms can be treated or managed (example: dandruff).

Sebum is produced by the sebaceous glands. Composed primarily of fatty acids, it acts to protect hair and skin, and can inhibit the growth of microorganisms on the skin. This oily substance also plays a very important role in hair's appearance. It gives hair moisture and shine and serves as a protective substance preventing the hair from drying out or absorbing excessive amounts of external substances. Sebum in excess can make the roots of hair appear oily, greasy, and darker than normal, and the hair may stick together making it look clumpy and unkempt.

Hair's natural oils travel along the hair shaft naturally. In some people there is a low production of sebum resulting in dry hair. This can be helped mechanically by brushing with a natural bristle brush. The natural bristles effectively move the oil from the scalp through to the hair's mid-lengths and ends, nourishing these parts of the hair. Brushing the scalp also stimulates the sebaceous gland, which in turn produces more sebum. When sebum and sweat combine on the scalp surface, they help to create the acid mantle, which is the skin's own protective layer.

Washing hair removes excess sweat and oil, as well as unwanted products from the hair and scalp. Soapless shampoos are acidic and therefore closer to the natural pH of hair. Acidic shampoos are the most common type used and maintain or improve the condition of the hair as they don't swell the hair shaft and don't strip the natural oils. Conditioners are often used after shampooing to smooth down the cuticle layer of the hair, which can become roughened during the physical process of shampooing. There are three main types of conditioners: anti-oxidant conditioners, which are mainly used in salons after chemical services and prevent creeping oxidation; internal conditioners, which enter into the cortex of the hair and help improve the hair's internal condition (also known as treatments); and external conditioners, or everyday conditioners, which smooth down the cuticle layer, making the hair shiny, combable and smooth. Conditioners can also provide a physical layer of protection for the hair against physical and environmental damage.

Luster & Sheen

Hair Conditions

The most obvious sign of healthy hair is luster and sheen. Luster refers to the brilliance of light being reflected off of a surface. Sheen refers to the way a surface reflects light. Healthy hair should have a high luster and a sheen that looks soft and shiny.

The visible hair shaft is made of three layers. The two most important ones are the cortex and cuticle. The inner cortex contains hair color pigment, as well as 80% of the strength of your hair. The cuticle is the outer layer and is composed of a clear, fingernail-like substance. The cuticle is shaped like fish scales and should lie flat in order to prevent tangles and matting. Luster and sheen are the results of light bouncing off a healthy cuticle allowing your base color pigment from the cortex below to show through. Raised cuticles absorb light making hair look dull. As discussed above in pH Factor & Hair, acid balanced products keep the hair cuticle flat providing luster and sheen to your hair.

Split Ends

Split End

Simply put, a split end is damaged hair. Split ends can give hair an unhealthy look and if left untreated can lead to matting, tangles, and even hair loss. The technical name for a split end is trichoptilosis (from Latin tricho- "hair" and ptilosis "feather") because under an electron microscope it looks somewhat like a feather.

Most of the time, untrimmed split ends will progress to the point that the hair shaft breaks off at the scalp, leaving the root intact to regrow. This will usually be seen by the hair left in brushes, combs, bed pillows, and shoulders. If that is all that happens, the only result from an appearance standpoint is that there is less hair volume. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Damage to the exterior hair strand can cause problems when the split end travels down below the scalp into the hair follicle. When this happens various infections can result in permanent hair loss and other problems. For this reason it is vital to manage split ends at all times.

Split ends are caused by undo stress on a strand of hair. There are three types of stress: thermal, chemical, or mechanical. Dry hair is easier to damage than moist hair. So, people with naturally dry hair will have split ends sooner than moist-hair people unless they do all of the things that prevent or slow down the point at which a split end occurs. Strong, moist (not wet), hair will eventually split too, because the longer hair is on the head, the more opportunities it has for stress exposure.

When the ends or tips of the hair are dislodged or broken away, the cortex is open to the drying effects of air, leading to frayed and split ends. For this reason it is strongly advisable to prevent split ends and when they occur to trim them off as soon as possible to prevent further damage to the hair.

Thermal Stress

Thermal stress results from excessive heat such as with curling irons, hairdryers, or other heat treatments. The most extreme types of thermal stress will burn or singe hair.

Hair will dry in air alone, because air is never 100% water, so any water exposed to it is absorbed by it. Two things accelerate the rate at which hair dries, temperature, and air-movement. Hair dryers provide one or both of these drying factors, but care should be taken that they are used properly for your hair type. In this context, "hair type" refers to the texture of your hair (thickness and rigidity) and its moisture content (dry, oily).

The nozzle end of blowdryers should be held at least one-inch from hair and kept moving so that the heat is never concentrated on any one spot too long. A concentrator is an attachment placed on the ends of blowdryers to focus heat into a narrow area. A diffuser is an attachment that does the opposite of a concentrator, spreading the heat over a larger area. If your hair is thin or dry a diffuser should be used. Another way to make this determination is that, if your hair frizzes easily with a blowdryer, then you need to use a diffuser.

Many blowdryers have "cool shot" buttons which turn off the heater and just blow room temperature air while the button is pressed. This function is useful in helping to maintain the hairstyle by setting it. The cold air also reduces frizz and can help to bolster the shine in the hair. Many also feature "ionic" operation, to reduce the amount of static electricity build-up in the hair. Manufacturers also claim this makes the hair "smoother", but this has not been confirmed by independent testing. Still it is worth considering.

While sitting under a salon-style hairdryer (also known as "rigid-hood dryer") a thin plastic cap should be worn to evenly distribute the heat. Regardless of the dryer type, the temperature should be kept well below 140 degrees—the temperature at which skin burns. And the hair should be at room temperature when finished.

Hair that is singed should be cut away below the damaged part as soon as possible.

Mechanical Stress

Mechanical stress results from anything that pulls or crushes the hair with a force that is greater than the tensile strength of the hair being stressed. Examples include tugging a comb through matted hair, repeated combing or brushing, especially if the comb or brush is hard. Massaging the hair is not harmful if it is done properly—rubbing the hair up towards the scalp with the soft pads of fingers, because fingers are not hard or narrow enough to exert sufficient force. Care should be taken to avoid fingernails, because massaging hair with hard objects can cause significant damage.

Chemical Stress

As discussed in the section above titled pH Factor & Hair, any chemical that causes hair to move outside of the acid balance of 4.5 to 5.5 creates a harmful stress and should be counter-acted immediately with shampoos and conditioners that restore an acid balance. Excessive application of hair products such as perms and hair coloring may strip protective layering off the outside of the hair's shaft and weaken the hair, making the hair prone to split ends.

Hair grows an average of ½ inch per month. It is advised that your hair should be cut at minimum once every four weeks. Trimming as little as ¼ of an inch off the ends will keep split ends from forming.


To keep hair healthy there are just two important rules: first, keep split ends trimmed off, and second keep hair clean and conditioned with products that leave it in a pH range of 4.5 to 5.5.